Angry drivers seek change to Bluffton Parkway traffic circle

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 31, 2013 

A woman pushes a baby carriage around the Bluffton Road roundabout at Bluffton Parkway on Oct. 31, 2013, as traffic swirls past. Blufftonians are circulating an online petition asking the SC Department of Transportation to lower the speed limit at the roundabout. Leah McCarthy, who started the petition, had a minor wreck there in July.

JAY KARR — Staff photo Buy Photo

Leah McCarthy was running errands two weeks ago when her Honda Pilot collided with another car circling the Bluffton Parkway roundabout.

She checked her 9-year-old son in the back seat. He was fine. So was McCarthy, who is 5 1/2 months pregnant.

However, the reaction from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office deputy who responded to the accident got her thinking.

"He made a comment about how many accidents there were at the roundabout and how someone should do something about it," she said.

So McCarthy started a petition on MoveOn.org to bring attention to problems she perceives at the traffic circle at the intersection of Bluffton Parkway and S.C. 46 in Bluffton. She wanted 100 signatures.

"I had that in an hour," she said.

Now, two weeks later, McCarthy's petition has collected more than 500 signatures in the effort to change a roundabout that petition signers called "a very dangerous and confusing traffic circle" and "a serious accident waiting to happen."

Signers say they are concerned about drivers leaving the inside lane and crossing into the outside lane to exit the roundabout. Motorists in the outside lane might be continuing forward or merging into the inside lane, creating the potential for a wreck, they say.

McCarthy and online commenters suggest eliminating the outside lane of the roundabout and forcing the right-hand lane to go right at all entry points, similar to the Sea Pines Circle on Hilton Head Island.

"There would still be two lanes coming into the circle, but the left and right lanes would be separated by landscaping or a divider at the entrance to the roundabout," McCarthy said.

The type of change the residents seek would require a large construction project and take at least two years, said Joey Riddle, an engineer with the S.C. Department of Transportation's Traffic and Safety System.

"Once you leave the low-cost arena and get someone doing an engineering study, we're talking about a much broader project," he said Thursday.

Riddle pointed to recent changes to the traffic circle that he believes have improved safety.

In December, the DOT thickened striping, and added signs and markings to make the roundabout easier to understand, a move that has resulted in fewer accidents, he said

From June 2011 to the end of 2012, there were 45 accidents at the roundabout, or 2.58 per month, according to DOT statistics. So far this year, there have been 12, an average of 1.2 per month, Riddle said.

"The accidents are at a much lower speed than at any intersection," he said. "It's probably the safest design, but that doesn't mean there's not some little bumps and side swipes."

Beaufort County's approval would be required before moving forward with any changes, said Brent Rewis, DOT Lowcountry project manager.

Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch, who represents the area, said Thursday was the first she'd heard of the petition, but recommended McCarthy bring it before County Council.

"That way we can determine what the options are and see if we can make any improvements for safety," she said.

McCarthy said she spoke with Riddle on Wednesday and understands there's "definitely not an easy fix, but it's a genuine concern."

"I know people care," she said. "I can't go to the grocery store without somebody stopping me: 'Thanks for what you're doing, my mother was in an accident at the circle.'"

Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

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